Beyond the comfort zone: New non-fiction

May has snuck up on us! We’re mourning the daylight and breaking out the coats and scarves, but the dwindling autumn months come with some benefits too. Just picture it: rain lashing the windows and steam curling from your favourite mug; you’ve got nowhere to be except here, curled up in a cosy spot, a captivating book resting on your knee.

While we’re definitely advocates for comfort when it comes to our favourite reading nooks, we also love what Azar Nafisi has to say in her latest book Read Dangerously. Written as a series of letters to her late father, she uses the lens of literature to make sense of recent world events. Nafisi invites us to challenge ourselves through the books we read, to face our preconceptions head on and to seek out texts that foster connection rather than division. It’s a mix of literary analysis and memoir, in conversation with the work of James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Ta-Nehesi Coates to name just a few. It’s well worth checking out! 

On the theme of literary analysis, local poet Anna Jackson’s has a new book out. It’s called Actions and Travels, and in it she looks at 100 different poems with the goal of showing us how poetry works. It’s perfect for people who are new to poetry but unsure where to begin, while the poetically-confident will enjoy Jackson’s expert analysis.

Other picks for this month include the timely Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, which looks at a group of American reporters whose work in the lead up to WWII has had a huge impact on war journalism, shaping the industry to this day. In The Man Who Tasted Words, neurologist Guy Leschziner explores a selection of unusual sensory experiences through case studies of his patients, introducing us to people who feel no pain, who smell phantom smells, and who are no longer able to hold a picture in their mind’s eye. Then in Sounds Wild and Broken, David Haskell celebrates the sounds of our world – from cicada symphonies to human song – exploring the origins of this sonic diversity and showing us why it must be protected.

Read dangerously : the subversive power of literature in troubled times / Nafisi, Azar
“What is the role of literature in an era when one political party wages continual war on writers and the press? What is the connection between political strife in our daily lives, and the way we meet our enemies on the page in fiction? How can literature, through its free exchange, affect politics? Drawing on her experiences as a woman and voracious reader living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, her life as an immigrant in the United States, and her role as literature professor in both countries, Nafisi crafts an argument for why, in a genuine democracy, we must engage with the enemy, and how literature can be a vehicle for doing so.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Last call at the Hotel Imperial : the reporters who took on a world at war / Cohen, Deborah
“They were an astonishing group: glamourous, gutsy, and irreverent to the bone. Last Call at the Hotel Imperial is the extraordinary story of John Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean, and Dorothy Thompson: a close-knit band of wildly famous American reporters who, in the run-up to World War II, took on dictators and rewrote the rules of modern journalism. They committed themselves to the cause of freedom: fiercely and with all its hazards. The fault lines that ran through a crumbling world, they would find, ran through their own marriages and friendships too. Told with the immediacy of a conversation overheard, this revelatory book captures how the global upheavals of the twentieth century felt to live through up close.” (Adapted from Amazon UK)

The man who tasted words : a neurologist explores the strange and startling world of our senses / Leschziner, Guy
“Vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch are what we rely on to perceive the reality of our world. But are they really that reliable? Leschziner explores how our nervous systems define our worlds and how we can, in fact, be victims of falsehoods perpetrated by our own brains. In his moving and lyrical chronicles of lives turned upside down by a disruption in one or more of their five senses, he introduces readers to extraordinary individuals he’s worked with in his practice, like one man who actually “tasted” words, and shows us how sensory disruptions like that have played havoc, not only with their view of the world, but with their relationships as well.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Actions & travels : how poetry works / Jackson, Anna
“A brilliant introduction to how poetry works through one hundred poems. Through illuminating readings of one hundred poems – from Catullus to Alice Oswald, Shakespeare to Hera Lindsay Bird – Actions & Travels is an engaging introduction to how poetry works. Ten chapters look at simplicity and resonance, imagery and form, letters and odes, and much more. In Actions & Travels Anna Jackson explains how we can all read (and even write) poetry.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Legacy of violence : a history of the British empire / Elkins, Caroline
“Sprawling across a quarter of the world’s land mass and claiming nearly seven hundred million people, Britain’s twentieth-century empire was the largest empire in human history. For many Britons, it epitomized their nation’s cultural superiority, but what legacy did the island nation deliver to the world? Covering more than two hundred years of history, Caroline Elkins reveals an evolutionary and racialized doctrine that espoused an unrelenting deployment of violence to secure and preserve the nation’s imperial interests. Drawing on more than a decade of research on four continents, Legacy of Violence implicates all sides of Britain’s political divide in the creation, execution, and cover-up of imperial violence, upending long-held myths and shedding new light on empire’s role in shaping the world today.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The status game : on social position and how we use it / Storr, Will
“For centuries, philosophers and scholars have described human behaviour in terms of sex, power and money. Bestselling author Will Storr radically turns this thinking on its head by arguing that it is our irrepressible craving for status that ultimately defines who we are. It’s an unconscious obsession that drives the best and worst of us: our innovation, arts and civilisation as well as our murders, wars and genocides. But why is status such an all-consuming prize? What happens if it’s taken away from us? The Status Game offers a sweeping rethink of human psychology that will change how you see others – and how you see yourself.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Sounds wild and broken : sonic marvels, evolution’s creativity and the crisis of sensory extinction / Haskell, David George
“The Earth’s sounds are wonderfully diverse, complex and beautiful — but they are under threat. Starting with the origins of animal song and traversing the whole arc of Earth history, Haskell illuminates and celebrates the emergence of the varied sounds of our world. We learn that human music and language belong within this story of ecology and evolution. Yet we are also destroyers, now silencing or smothering many of the sounds of the living Earth. Haskell shows that sonic crises are not mere losses of sensory ornament. Sound is a generative force, and so the erasure of sonic diversity makes the world less creative, just and beautiful. Sounds Wild and Broken is an invitation to listen, wonder, belong and act.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Seven games : a human history / Roeder, Oliver
“A group biography of seven enduring and beloved games, and the story of why – and how – we play them. Checkers, Backgammon, Chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and Bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the behavioural design that make them pleasurable. He delves into the history and lore of each game, and explores why games, seemingly trivial pastimes, speak so deeply to the human soul. Funny, fascinating and profound, Seven Games is a story of obsession, psychology, history, and how play makes us human.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Words and worlds: New non-fiction

New Non Fiction April

A collage of something speaking into a tin phone and speech bubles

Reord-berend, m.n: ‘speech-bearer’, human.
(REH-ord-BEH-rend)

We came across this Old English phrase on the Twitter account of author Hana Videen, where she posts one Old English word. This has become the basis for her book The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English. Videen’s book is a delight for anyone who wants to learn more about the origins of the English we speak today. Inside its pages are words that we still recognise (‘word’, for instance, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years) as well as others that are unfamiliar to us now – like the poignant reord-berend. It makes us wonder: what does it mean to be a speech-bearer? To define ourselves as humans by our ability to communicate, by the stories that we tell?

So, on that note, here are some of the other new books we’ve found this month on language and communication. One that stood out to us is The Babel Message, where author Keith Kahn-Harris uses the warning inside a chocolate egg as a starting point to explore the diversity of language, asking us: what gets lost in translation? And what do we discover? There’s also Index, A History of the (which you’ll find right at the end of this post), a fascinating book that reveals the unexpectedly dramatic past of the index. Then we have journalist Van Badham’s Qanon and On, which is about conspiracy theories in the age of the internet, as online communication becomes rife with disinformation. 

The rest of the books we’ve picked for you this month are about our world, and the stories we tell about this planet as we try to understand our place here. There are the afterworlds in The Devil’s Atlas, an illustrated tour of the heavens, hells and in-betweens found in various cultures and religions. Earth’s own strange history is depicted vividly in Otherlands, where palaeontologist Thomas Halliday takes us on a journey backwards through time, from the recent ice age (geologically speaking) all the way to the era of primordial soup. And lastly, there’s the wonderful Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World which deals with the climate crisis in a way that is both honest and intimate, helping us to come to grips with the way our home is changing.

The babel message : a love letter to language / Kahn-Harris, Keith
“Keith Kahn-Harris is a man obsessed with something seemingly trivial – the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise eggs: WARNING, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled. On a tiny sheet of paper, this message is translated into dozens of languages – the world boiled down to a multilingual essence. Inspired by this, the author asks: what makes ‘a language’? With the help of the international community of language geeks, he shows us what the message looks like in Ancient Sumerian, Zulu, Cornish, Klingon – and many more. Overturning the Babel myth, he argues that the messy diversity of language shouldn’t be a source of conflict, but of collective wonder.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Otherlands : a world in the making / Halliday, Thomas
“What would it be like to experience the ancient landscapes of the past as we experience the reality of nature today? Journeying backwards in time from the most recent Ice Age to the dawn of complex life itself, and across all seven continents, Halliday immerses us in sixteen lost ecosystems, each one rendered with a novelist’s eye for detail and drama. In Otherlands, the multi-talented palaeontologist Thomas Halliday gives us a breath-taking up close encounter with worlds that are normally unimaginably distant. To read this book is to time travel, to see the last 550 million years not as an endless expanse of unfathomable time, but as a series of worlds, simultaneously fantastical and familiar.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The wordhord : daily life in Old English / Videen, Hana
“Old English is the language we think we know until we actually see it. Used in England over a thousand years ago, it is rich with words that haven’t changed (word), others that are unrecognisable (neorxnawang – paradise) and some that are curiously mystifying (gafol-fisc – tax-fish). In this beautiful little book, Hana Videen has gathered these gems together to create a glorious trove and illuminate the lives, beliefs and habits of our linguistic ancestors. We discover a world where choking on a bit of bread might prove your guilt, where fiend-ship was as likely as friend-ship, and you might grow up to be a laughter-smith. These are the magical roots of our own language: you’ll never see English in the same way again.” (Catalogue)

Warmth : coming of age at the end of our world / Sherrell, Daniel
Warmth is a new kind of book about climate change – not a prescription or a polemic, but an intensely personal examination of how it feels to imagine a future under its weight, written from inside the youth-led climate movement itself. Weaving sit-ins and snowstorms, synagogues and subway tunnels, Sherrell delves into the questions that feel most urgent to young people at our current crossroads. In seeking new ways to understand and respond to these forces that feel so far out of our control, Warmth lays bare the common stakes we face, and illuminates new sources of faith in our shared humanity.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The devil’s atlas : an explorer’s guide to heavens, hells and afterworlds / Brooke-Hitching, Edward
The Devil’s Atlas is an illustrated guide to the heavens, hells and lands of the dead as imagined throughout history by cultures and religions around the world. Whether it’s the thirteen heavens of the Aztecs, the Chinese Taoist netherworld of ‘hungry ghosts’, or the ‘Hell of the Flaming Rooster’ of Japanese Buddhist mythology, The Devil’s Atlas gathers together a wonderful variety of beliefs and representations of life after death. A traveller’s guide to worlds unseen, this book is a fascinating study of the boundless capacity of human invention, and a visual chronicle of human hopes, fears and fantasies of what lies beyond.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Qanon and on : a short and shocking history of internet conspiracy cults / Badham, Van
“In QAnon and On, Guardian columnist Van Badham delves headfirst into the QAnon conspiracy theory, unpicking the why, how and who behind this century’s most dangerous and far-fetched internet cult. Internet manipulation and disinformation campaigns have grown to a geopolitical scale and spilled into real life with devastating consequences. But what would motivate followers to so forcefully avoid the facts and surrender instead to made-up stories designed to influence and control? It’s a question that has haunted Van, herself a veteran of social media’s relentless trolling wars. In this daring investigation, Van exposes some of the internet’s most extreme communities to understand conspiracy cults from the inside.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The world according to colour : a cultural history / Fox, James
“The subject of this book is mankind’s extraordinary relationship with colour. It is composed of a series of voyages, ranging across the world and throughout history, which reveal the meanings that have been attached to the colours we see around us and the ways these have shaped our culture and imagination. It takes seven colours – black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green – and uncovers behind each a root idea, based on visual resemblances or properties so rudimentary as to be common to all societies.” (Catalogue)

Index, a history of the : a bookish adventure from medieval manuscripts to the digital age / Duncan, Dennis
“Most of us give little thought to the back of the book – it’s just where you go to look things up. But as Dennis Duncan reveals in this delightful and witty history, hiding in plain sight is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. Here, for the first time, is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past. Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Duncan uncovers how it has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office, and made us all into the readers we are today.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Your Next Niche Read: new non-fiction

There’s truly nothing better than diving headfirst into a new non-fiction book, so if you’re searching for your next niche read – be it a beloved genre or something totally unfamiliar – then look no further! This month’s picks offer a variety of options for you to choose from.

Perhaps you’d like to delve into the intricate relationship between nature and society in On the Necessity of Gardening – a gorgeously produced book that includes its very own garden abecedarium (the fanciest name for the ABCs that we’ve ever heard!) We personally cannot wait to explore the sunken lands that lurk in myths and oral histories in Worlds in Shadow. And for the true crime enthusiasts among us, why not test your knowledge with Neil Bradley’s A Taste for Poison?

Of course, we know how hard it is to restrict yourself to just one subject alone, so if you’re feeling indecisive then Siri Hustvedt’s collection might be the one for you, with masterful essays on topics that range from neuroscience and literary criticism, to families and feminism. And on that note, if you enjoyed the recent Hilma af Klint exhibit, then definitely check out This Dark Country, a genre-defying book that’s both poetic and informative as it brings to light the stories of painters who might have otherwise been forgotten. 

Worlds in shadow : submerged lands in science, memory and myth / Nunn, Patrick D.
“The traces of much of human history – and that which preceded it – lie beneath the ocean surface. This is fertile ground for speculation, even myth-making, but also a topic on which geologists and climatologists have increasingly focused on in recent decades. This is the first book to present the science of submergence in a popular format. Patrick Nunn sifts the fact from the fiction, using the most up-to-date research to work out which submerged places may have actually existed versus those that probably only exist in myth.” (Catalogue)

Mothers, fathers, and others : essays / Hustvedt, Siri
“Siri Hustvedt’s relentlessly curious mind and expansive intellect are on full display in this stunning new collection of essays, whose subjects range from the nature of memory and time to what we inherit from our parents, the power of art during tragedy, misogyny, motherhood, neuroscience, and the books we turn to during a pandemic. Ultimately, Mothers, Fathers, and Others reminds us that the boundaries we take for granted – between ourselves and others, between art and viewer – are far less stable than we imagine.” (Adapted from Amazon UK)

On the necessity of gardening : an ABC of art, botany and cultivation
“Over the centuries, artists, writers, poets and thinkers have each described, depicted and designed the garden in different ways. In medieval art, the garden was a reflection of paradise, a place of harmony and fertility, shielded from worldly problems. In the eighteenth century this image tilted: the garden became a symbol of worldly power and politics. The Anthropocene, the era in which man completely dominates nature with disastrous consequences, is forcing us to radically rethink the role we have given nature in recent decades.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

A taste for poison : eleven deadly molecules and the killers who used them / Bradbury, Neil
“As any reader of murder mysteries can tell you, poison is one of the most enduring – and popular – weapons of choice for a scheming murderer. It can be slipped into a drink, smeared onto the tip of an arrow or the handle of a door, even filtered through the air we breathe. But how exactly do these poisons work to break our bodies down, and what can we learn from the damage they inflict? In a fascinating blend of popular science, medical history, and true crime, Dr. Neil Bradbury explores this most morbidly captivating method of murder from a cellular level. ” (Adapted from Catalogue)

This dark country : women artists, still life and intimacy in the early Twentieth century / Birrell, Rebecca
“Lemons gleam in a bowl. Flowers fan out softly in a vase. What is contained in a still life – and what falls out of the frame? For every artist we remember, there is one we have forgotten; who leaves only elusive traces; whose art was replaced by being a mother or wife; whose remaining artworks lie dusty in archives or attics. In this boldly original blend of group biography and art criticism, Rebecca Birrell brings these shadowy figures into the light and conducts a dazzling investigation into the structures of intimacy that make – and dismantle – our worlds.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Conversations on love / Lunn, Natasha
“After years of feeling that love was always out of reach, journalist Natasha Lunn set out to understand how relationships work and evolve over a lifetime. She turned to authors and experts to learn about their experiences, as well as drawing on her own, asking: How do we find love? How do we sustain it? And how do we survive when we lose it? In Conversations on Love she began to find the answers.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

A wild idea / Franklin, Jonathan
“In 1991, Doug Tompkins abandoned his comfortable life in San Francisco and flew 6,500 miles south to a shack in Patagonia. Shielded by waterfalls and wilderness, the founder of such groundbreaking companies as Esprit and The North Face suddenly regretted the corporate capitalism from which he had profited from years. As a CEO he had caused much pollution and, “made things nobody needed.” Now, he declared, it was time to reverse the damage to the planet, and maybe even himself. In A Wild Idea, award-winning journalist and bestselling author Jonathan Franklin tells the incredible true story of Douglas Tompkins, who became one of the primary founders of our modern conservation and land protection movement.” (Adapted from Catalogue)